My Bingo Card for Tonight

I don’t normally talk about politics on this blog, but since President Trump’s State of the Union address is tonight, I thought I’d make an exception. I encourage you to watch the speech, a little bit so you can keep up with current events and learn important(?) information for American citizens about the President’s policies, etc., etc…but mostly for this:

Here is my custom Bingo card for tonight’s speech, made from the Washington Post’s template. I wholeheartedly support this because it will inject some much needed fun into the mess that is American politics today, and it’s safer than trying to play the drinking game. (Don’t try that at home.)

I’ll post my results tomorrow, but I have a feeling it won’t be hard to get a Bingo or three.

Posted in Current events, Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

State of the Blog

This won’t be a big speech or anything. I’ve leave that to certain people who enjoy making speeches on Tuesday. I just wanted to make a quick note because I’ve discovered something interesting about this blog.

I’ve been maintaining this blog for about 6 years, which is kind of amazing. It doesn’t feel that long. And I haven’t always been consistent. There have been a few times when I’ve gone months without posting. However, I’m trying to get better about that. One of my New Year’s resolutions this year is to post at least once per week (where a week is measured Monday to Sunday). So far, I’ve kept that up, and I’m optimistic about the rest of the year.

I’ll talk more about my New Year’s resolutions later, possibly toward the end of the year when they’ll be more relevant to my average reader. However, I wanted to point out something else.

I’ve been wanting to archive my blog for a while, just in case WordPress goes under or something, but I’ve been bad about not keeping an offline copy of my posts, and there’s not really an easy way to download an entire blog–not without upgrading to WordPress’s business plan, anyway.

So today, I decided to buckle down and manually archive my entire blog into Scrivener. All 298 posts. It took a couple hours, but it wasn’t too hard with copy-and-paste. I didn’t try to preserve the format or the images or even the tags because that would have taken ten times longer, but all I really needed was the text.

The interesting thing happened when I had Scrivener compute the total word count. Not counting this post, I have written 164,387 words on this blog! That’s equal to a book, or even two books, and that’s without even trying.

I’m writing this to encourage any fellow writers who might be reading. I wasn’t pushing for word count; I wrote as the fancy took me; I was too busy half the time, and I was unreliable about it…and I still wrote enough for two books in six years. Writing a book isn’t as insurmountable as it first appears, so if you have an idea for one, go for it.

Posted in General, Writing | Tagged , , ,

Aron Ra, Kent Hovind, and the Evolution Debate

Aron Ra (left) and Kent Hovind (right).

Over the past several months, Christian creationist Kent Hovind and militant atheist Aron Ra held an extended YouTube debate about the evidence for evolution. (You can see Hovind’s challenge here and the first video of the debate, by Aron Ra, here.) Since I wrote before about the (in-person) evolution debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham in 2014, I wanted to analyze this one too.

Continue reading

Posted in Biology, Science | Tagged , , , ,

My First Attempts at Astrophotography

So, I won a nice astronomical camera in a raffle at the recent AAS conference, and since there was a lunar eclipse last night, I wanted to try it out with my telescope to get pictures.

This didn’t go as well as I’d hoped.

I had several problems getting my telescope set up properly. A broken tripod I could work around. A bad connection to the controls? I could still get it pointed. But here’s the thing, up here in Ann Arbor, it was the coldest night of the year. By midnight, it was hovering around zero Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius). I was bundled up enough myself, but it was so cold that frost was forming on my computer screen in 20 minutes.

And the cold proved to be my downfall. It turns out, I can’t autofocus the camera unless I can point it at a star to resolve it as a point. But I couldn’t point it at a star and get it to stay put without turning on the electronic tracking. And it was so cold that the electronic tracking was malfunctioning. That meant I had to focus blind by taking a photo and adjusting the focus knob on the telescope itself.

This is the first photo I took. It’s about the best focus I could get doing it blind, and the resolution was smaller than I’d hoped. (And obviously, the field of view is smaller than the Moon.) This is a raw image, which means I haven’t done any processing to clean it up like you usually see in astronomical photos. I couldn’t stay out very long because of the cold, so I didn’t have time explore all of the camera’s options. I think there’s a higher-resolution mode available, but I’m not sure how to use it.

The bright white crater in the above image is Tycho, which is at the south end of the Moon’s face, and the dark area at the upper left is the largest of the Moon’s “seas,” Oceanus Procellarum (The Ocean of Storms).

Here is an area slightly north of the first photo showing Oceanus Procellarum with a lighter auto-adjusted brightness. (I told you they were raw images.) I took these two photos at the very beginning of the eclipse. If you look carefully, you will see a darkened region at the top of the Moon’s disk, which is where it’s starting to enter Earth’s outer shadow.

I took this image about an hour into the eclipse, when the Moon was halfway into Earth’s inner shadow, the umbra–the part that looks red when the Moon is fully covered. The orientation of the camera is different here, so the features you can see on the light part of the Moon are in the northeast: the Sea of Tranquility (where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed) and the Sea of Serenity.

Here’s a picture of the southern part of the eclipse boundary. On the light part of the Moon, you can just make out the Sea of Fertility and the Sea of Nectar.

Back to the northern part again, maybe a little bit better focus.

I wanted to get photos of totality, when the Moon is fully covered and turns blood red. However, here I ran into another problem. I live in an area with a lot of exterior lights, and with the Moon being so much dimmer then, the glare from the lights reflected inside the telescope was too much to see it clearly. Even looking with my eyes, the glare was so bad that when I first spotted the Moon, I thought it had gone behind a cloud, so it was pretty much hopeless.

So, my process needs some work. I’m going to see if I can come up with something better and in a better location when the weather warms up.

Posted in astronomy, Stargazing | Tagged ,

Sunday’s Total Lunar Eclipse

A photo of the lunar eclipse of July 27, 2018. Credit: Giuseppe Donatiello.

On the night of Sunday-Monday, January 20-21, there will be a total lunar eclipse. (Official NASA info.) This eclipse will be especially significant because it will be the first total lunar eclipse visible from most or all of North America since 2014, and there won’t be another one so easily visible from this continent until 2025. (Sadly, due to inclement weather, I haven’t been able to see one myself since 2010.)

The Moon will start to go dark at 9:36 PM Eastern Time on Sunday night, and it will be fully within the deep red umbra of Earth’s shadow from 11:41 to 12:43 Eastern Time. West Coast viewers will have an easier time of it, but for East Coast viewers, it will definitely be worth staying up for it.

For my international readers, you will be able to see the full eclipse from everywhere in North and South America except for the Aleutian Islands. Most people in Europe and West Africa will also be able to see it if you get up in the hours before sunrise on Monday.

You may have heard of this eclipse described in the media as the “Super Blood Wolf Moon,” or some variant thereof. However, this is just an overhyped and rather silly way of describing the Moon’s position in its orbit and in the calendar.

And it is NOT a portent of doom! Honestly, how does this nonsense keep coming up in this day and age?!

Now, these names do each mean something. The “Wolf Moon” is the name of the full moon in January, based on the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which is allegedly based on old Native American calendars (without much evidence). These calendars give each full moon of the year its own name, of which the best known is probably the “Harvest Moon” in September.

The “supermoon” is a rather silly name that started circulating in 2011 for a full moon when the Moon is at perigee (closest to Earth in its orbit) and appears slightly larger in the sky (or closer than a certain distance, which allows two or three “supermoons” in a row). This is an annual event, but it cycles around the calendar every nine years. Some people think this has astrological significance, and it came to mainstream attention after it was blamed for causing the Japanese earthquake and tsunami (it didn’t). Actual astronomers, on the other hand, think astrology is bunk and wish this term would just go away.

The “Blood Moon” is a poetic name for a total lunar eclipse because the Moon does not go completely dark, like a solar eclipse, but instead appears blood red, lit by sunlight bent through Earth’s atmosphere—essentially, the light of all the sunsets around the world. This terminology goes back to the Bible, where multiple prophecies say, “The Sun will turn to darkness [a solar eclipse], and the Moon will turn to blood [a lunar eclipse].” However, both kinds of eclipses are fairly common, happening once a year or so on a global scale, so as End Times prophecies go, this one is no more dire than, “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars…and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.”

As screwed up as our world is right now, this eclipse doesn’t foretell doom any more than any other eclipse of the past few millennia. So (unless you’re facing the other impending doom of this weekend’s winter storm), you should bundle up and go out to take a look at this beautiful astronomical sight.

Posted in astronomy, Current events, Doomsday predictions, Stargazing | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Highlights from the AAS Conference

For the past week, over three thousand astronomers from all over the world (including yours truly) met in Seattle, Washington for the American Astronomical Society Winter Meeting, the largest astronomy conference in the world. Much science was announced and discussed, and I took notes to give you some highlights.

This year’s meeting was a little bit disrupted because of the U.S. government shutdown, which prevented most NASA employees from attending—10%-15% of the total attendees. Nonetheless, the AAS did an admirable job of keeping most of the events running and finding replacement speakers when they were needed.

By tradition, the first talk of the conference is always about some important new development in astronomy from the past six months, and this year, it was ‘Oumuamua, the interstellar (probably-)comet that was seen zipping through the Solar System last October. Greg Laughlin from Yale and Ka’iu Kimura from the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hawai’i spoke together to describe not only the scientific findings about this object, but also how its discoverers made efforts to involve the native Hawai’ian culture of the lands on which the observatory that discovered it sits. After the discovery, ‘Imiloa scrambled to produce a name in keeping with Hawai’ian naming traditions and decided on ‘Oumuamua, which has roughly the sense of “first distant messenger.”

Other notable properties of ‘Oumuamua are that it is reddish (which is common in comet-like objects), rotates in 7.2 hours (also common), is splinter-shaped (very unusual), and has no visible dust around it (which we aren’t sure is unusual, but is definitely not what we expected). Most interestingly, the detection of ‘Oumuamua suggests that such interstellar comets are very common. Each star could very well eject many trillions of comets when it forms, adding up to about the mass of the Earth. It also means that distant giant planets like Neptune should also be common to actually do the scattering. If true, Neptune would be one of the few ways in which our own Solar System is actually normal.

Other highlights from the conference include:

Gravitational waves from colliding black holes are helping us narrow down not only the number of black holes in the universe, but also their properties and the properties of other stars as well. We now have a pretty good estimate of the number of black hole mergers: between 26 and 109 per cubic gigaparsec (35 cubic gigalightyears) per year. Also, the mass range of black holes is narrower than we expected, which provides more evidence for something called a pulsational pair-instability supernova, by which very massive stars can explode without leaving anything behind.

The Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) is teaching us a whole lot of stuff, including finding the most distant confirmed galaxy ever found at a redshift of 9.1. (The Hubble Space Telescope might have found farther ones, but it can’t measure them very accuratly.) It is also doing a lot of work to tease out the mysteries of planet formation.

Finding habitable planets is incredibly difficult, and it also works differently around red dwarf stars. For example, on Earth, we have ice-albedo feedback: more ice reflects light from our yellow sun and cools the planet. But on a planet orbiting a red dwarf, ice absorbs infrared light from the red sun, warming the planet. This could mean that planets orbiting red dwarfs are more protected from freezing over as Earth did a couple times.

And…we still haven’t found dark matter. And physicists are getting kind of worried (or excited depending on which theories you believe). A lot of people think we should have seen it by now, and if we don’t in the next few years, it’ll be a sign that dark matter is even weirder than we thought.

Posted in astronomy, Science | Tagged , , , , , ,

On Covering Science News

Ultima Thule, the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft, was discovered this week to resemble a snowman (upside down in this image). This is the best-quality photo currently available.

I feel like I’ve been pretty lax about talking about science news stories here. This blog is called Science Meets Fiction, but lately, when I have time to post at all, it only seems to be about fiction. Part of this, I think, is because the big science news stories get covered by a hundred other major newspapers and blogs, and I don’t feel like I have anything new to say about them. I’m trying to find a niche in that field, but it’s difficult.

This past week, I was going to write a post on New Horizons’s flyby of Ultima Thule, but it didn’t really happen for several reasons. First, I’ve been traveling; I was visiting family for the holidays, and I’m now in Seattle for the American Astronomical Society Conference, and I haven’t had time to put together a thoughtful analysis. Second, there wasn’t all that much information released about Ultima Thule, given the difficulty of sending signals back to Earth from that far out, Earth going behind the Sun, and the limited resources available to receive them. (Maybe I should write a post on the state of the Deep Space Network next.) And third, what news there was has been pretty well covered by the media. I could talk about the results, but I feel like I don’t have a lot to add.

I like to think I’ve developed a good voice here for media reviews, and I’ve been pushing a little more into the analysis side with my recent posts on Fantastic Beasts and Mortal Engines. I don’t think I’ve yet developed that voice for news stories, and I been having trouble coming up with my own unique take on them amid the noise. I tried to do that a little with the SpaceX story a couple months ago, but I still feel adrift on that front.

I’m hoping I can do better in 2019. One thing I could do would be to take a science news story and explain what the media missed—what cool thing was left out, or why that new study is overhyped. Of course, that takes more in-depth reading if it’s not in my field. I’m not sure what direction to take it, and I welcome suggestions.

For right now, I’ll be writing at least one post on the AAS. Probably not every day. I tried that once, and it was a bit much, but we’ll see. This is the year’s biggest astronomy meeting, so there’s sure to be plenty of exciting results.

Posted in Current events, Science, Writing | Tagged , , , ,